John Sanders (center in yellow shirt) recently attended an event honoring the 50th anniversary of Danville High School’s 1st Football State Championship and induction of their coach, Ray Callahan, into Daville's Athletic Hall of Fame.
(This is part of an ongoing weekly diary as Ginger Sanders shares the emotional journey she is taking with her husband, John, as they discover his onset of Alzheimer’s. Over 5.4 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease; one in eight older Americans have it. Ginger and John Sanders did not expect to be among those statistics. Ginger’s touching story puts a real face and real name on the statistics and – she hopes – will help all of us understand what so many of our fellow Americans, loved ones and neighbors are going through.)
By Ginger Sanders
Special to KyForward
As we continue our journey, we attended an incredible event: The 50th Anniversary of Danville High School’s 1st Football State Championship and induction of their coach, Ray Callahan, into Danville’s Athletic Hall of Fame. Most of the team had not seen each other since high school graduation. All had been best buddies. John’s favorite team mates attended including Johnny Jackson, Sammy and Joe Burke, Bill Payne, Mike Swain, Freddie Durham, Critchfield twins and many more. John was the star linebacker for the team. I have to say that Danville’s mascot, the Admirals, does not strike fear in my heart but after 10 football state championships, it does in its opponents.
John Sanders (right) greets his former high school football coach, Ray Callahan, at the coach's Danville Athletics Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
John was so excited about seeing his former coach, Coach Ray Callahan. Coach Callahan had a major impact on John’s life and all positive. Understandably, John was apprehensive about seeing his former coach and teammates due to his Alzheimer’s. We want to look and be our best when we return to the days of our youth. John did not want to appear weak or debilitated in any way. He did not want to embarrass himself. I certainly understood. We all feel that way when we reach back in time to touch the people that knew us when we were young, virile and healthy. Back then, the sky was the limit. It still is but the sky is a little closer.
To waylay John’s fears and apprehension, I pledged that I, his son and brother would attend with him. In the instances that he would get stuck with words, one of us could jump in. It would also give his son, Patrick, an opportunity to meet people who impacted his father’s life.
There were 3 events. There was an informal get together on Friday night at Millennium Park in Danville and two other events on Saturday at Danville High School and Football Stadium. We drove to the Friday night event and I could tell John was nervous. Our son, Patrick, was already there waiting for his Dad.
John Sanders from his Danville High School Football team photo. Sanders was a linebacker on Daville's first state champion football team.
As we walked up, there was instant recognition on people’s faces. People began to gravitate to greet John. The look on his face was joyous. However, it was the former high school cheerleaders that were first in the “hug” line. It was such a marvelous feeling to see the affection on people’s faces toward each other. Then it was like a group hug. Big strong, successful men began hugging each other.
Coach Callahan arrived and it was if the state championship was won all over again. Although in a wheelchair, Coach hugged each player. When John went to greet Coach, Coach’s eyes lit up. John’s eyes welled up.
Stories were relived. Teasing abounded. To add a comedic factor, I kept being confused with John’s cousin, Ginger Sanders White, who was in the same class as John even though we look nothing alike.
My heart swelled with pride. John’s brother, Richard, arrived and the love between John, Richard and Patrick was palpable. John’s son, Patrick saw a different side of his dad. I could envision John as a young high school athlete and honestly, it made my heart skip a beat. Being shy as a young man, John focused on athletics, hunting with his friends and working on a farm. However, I got to relive some of the stories that weren’t so prim and proper. And I thought I introduced mischievousness to John. Nope, it was always there.
John didn’t hesitate greeting and talking with his old friends. However, on Saturday night, one of his best friends, Johnny Jackson (a doctor), pulled me aside and asked me if John was having any dementia problems. He said he had noticed him hesitating and losing his train of thought in conversation. I told him the story and our goal to beat Alzheimer’s. Johnny relayed that he had had cancer that had metastasized, usually a death sentence, but he beat it. He committed to supporting and helping us in any way possible.
Things sometimes happen in mysterious ways. Although we did not tell anyone about John’s Alzheimer’s, many of his team mates (from all over the country) discovered our column on KyForward.com. We heard from many team mates and cheerleaders after the event. However, they did not know what prompted them to do a Google search on John and me but they did. Once they found the column, they were devastated about John’s condition but heartened by our approach and love for one another. With the exception of Johnny Jackson, none of his friends saw any difference in John. Team mate Bill Payne said, “Of the attendees that looked the healthiest, the youngest, or the ablest, it was John.”
The incredible outpouring of love and compassion for My John has been inspirational and heartwarming. It was a boost that John needed. Although he had never felt alone in this struggle, he now realized he had an army that is ready to battle with us. This legacy of friendship spans over 50 years. How fortunate I am to have witnessed this renewal of friendship and camaraderie.
Although Ginger is a vice president of sales for a renowned antimicrobial company (SAS Global Inc.), her main objective is to stymie the onslaught of Alzheimer’s on her husband, John. Ginger lives with her husband and three dogs on their farm in Lawrenceburg. A dedicated family person, she and her husband have 11 grandsons. Ginger Sanders is a transplant from South Carolina and a product of the University of South Carolina where she majored in the English Literature. She has taken on the fight of Alzheimer’s to win and help others as they struggle through the quagmire of this disease. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read all of Ginger’s diary entries